Over the years, Thanksgiving has become a beloved holiday in America, a time when people are encouraged to come together and share their mutual gratitude for the blessings of good health and sustenance. It is a time to sit back and reflect on the accomplishments of our forefathers by celebrating family and more historically, the bounty of the harvest. As children, we are told the first Thanksgiving occurred when the Pilgrims and the Indians sat down together in a moment of peace and lauded their ability to work together and find value in the development of a new land. What is not so commonly known, however, is how this shared thankfulness became absorbed into a larger landscape of greed, fear, violence, and the pursuit of dominance. There’s no denying, it was a deeply romantic period for the new world, full of promise and possibility—and yet, it was also the beginning of what could be seen as the American Dark Ages. It was a cautionary tale of what can happen to “civilized people in an unimaginable wilderness.” The arrival of the European colonists marked a time when intense optimism, fused with a deep-seated fear of anything different, destroyed the innocence of an emerging nation.
Just like most fables and legends, there is a kernel of truth in the American Thanksgiving story. The pilgrims and the Indians did share a feast—where all were welcome and nourished—but it was not the beginning of a long and prosperous relationship between the two factions, as history has led us to believe. In fact, this seemingly peaceful meal of venison, clams, fruit, and squash marked the conclusion of an arduous journey for the pilgrims and the beginning of the end for their new native friends. Of course, we know the Indians did not thrive once the whites arrived from Europe, for they were eventually wiped out entirely by the settlers. But the mixture of history and myth that is Thanksgiving represents a whole lot more than puritanical ignorance, greed, and brutality—it symbolizes our classic inability to appreciate the glorious details of dark history. Thanksgiving is about far more than sharing a meaningful accord with natives—it is about acknowledging the savage platform responsible for centuries of ongoing cultural genocide in America. It’s about recognizing how our glimmering moment of enlightenment was largely overshadowed by an uncontrollable bout of religious fear.
Long used as a way to pull Americans together under a shared tale of national identity, the dark underbelly of the Thanksgiving story epitomizes the new world’s pernicious religious imperialism and attitude of supreme ownership. This truth is worsened by the realization that history worked for centuries to layer notions of goodwill, generosity, and acceptance on top of what was really a bloody and heartbreaking narrative. When we peel back these layers, many surprising truths are revealed about the true nature of the colonists—our nation’s “founding” people—and their commitment to designing a future befitting only themselves. While it’s perfectly fine to focus on the temporary friendship of two disparate cultures, it’s also worth remembering the godly pilgrim, Miles Standish, who cut off the head of a chief and “brought it back to Plymouth in triumph, where it was displayed on the blockhouse together with a flag made of a cloth soaked in the victim’s blood.” It was a romantic journey into the unknown that would leave a deep stain on the collective memory of its people.
When the pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620, they did not just pack up their things and move across town—they lit out on a journey so great, it would ultimately come to define the American spirit. Climbing aboard a merchant ship known as the Mayflower, some 100 people from the Dutch Netherlands left the coast of England and sailed across a vast, black sea to find a better life. Although they had heard some tales of the Hudson River and the plentiful open space, they were ultimately clueless about how to find food, or if they would find food. All they knew was the voyage marked the beginning of something big, the pursuit of their social and religious dreams, and a drastic move that would surely change their lives forever. In retrospect, the provincial world they knew in their minds could never have predicted the complexities they would soon face.
Leaving out on September 6, 1620, the voyage itself took 66 days, during which many of the 102 people on board become seasick, discouraged, and deeply concerned about their life choices. Constant cold and dampness on board brought about endless bouts of scurvy and general sickness. Although the ship initially encountered calm waters, the Atlantic storms soon began to rage, rendering the sails useless at times. Nevertheless, they stayed mostly on course and as they drew closer to land, they encountered some of the roughest seas of the trip, almost crashing along the shores of Northern Virginia. This near shipwreck forced them to round the tip of what is now Provincetown Harbor and land on the shores of Cape Cod. As the sun rose on August 9th, the pilgrims “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof.” Being low on supplies and ready to face impending winter, the pilgrims quickly got to work—not unloading goods or scouting the territory, but writing up the Mayflower Compact which would establish their rules for the new colony. It swore allegiance to the English king and promised to create a “civil Body Politick” governed by elected officials, who would enforce “just and equal laws” for all. From the moment they landed on shore, their intention was not to honor the land—but to own it.
While polite history tells us these pilgrims were simply pious souls looking for a fresh start in the great wilderness of North America, they were, in fact, deliberate religious dropouts who intended to found a new nation completely independent from their past experiences. They began as “separatists” who left Nottinghamshire, England in 1608 and moved to a town in Holland where they could divorce themselves from the corrupt Church of England and the omnipotence of the Catholic Church. Although their new life did offer some reprieve, Dutch guilds and communities were not particularly fond of migrants and only offered them the most menial of jobs. The pilgrims who now referred to themselves as “saints” also began to see examples of evil extravagance and liberalism in Holland and feared their young people would be seduced by this unholy lifestyle. It appeared they would need to move even further away in order to find the level of freedom they desired. They came to the new world with every intention of building their prophesied “Holy Kingdom,” where their fundamental religious ideals could reign supreme. This important fact does much to explain their subsequent descent into unrestrained brutality against the native people. Their physical savagery perfectly matched the intellectual savagery they waged against those who did not share their religious fervor, not to mention their fierce denunciation of one another in times of struggle.
Despite their optimism, the pilgrims faced a harsh and unforgiving first winter—all historical depictions agree on this point. Because they were not able to properly work the land, they lived those cold months on the Mayflower, where half of them died from malnutrition, disease, and exposure to unrelenting New England weather. Even though their numbers eventually grew into the hundreds, the first settlement at Plymouth was a meager and sorry situation. The pilgrims heard the native footsteps and voices in the woods for four months before they ever saw them, but the Indians, officially known then as the Wampanoag Confederacy, had seen this breed of white men before. European ships had been passing through the area for years, occasionally dropping anchor to steal some natives for slaves and pull fresh water from the brook. The explorers had also stolen Indians so they could teach them English and use them as guides and translators on future journeys. But even more frightening was the sickness the white people brought with them from the sea, which had devastated the numbers of the Wampanoag tribe and left them vulnerable to their Pequot and Narragansett neighbors in the west. Modern medicine tells us this disease was likely a form of leptospirosis which was proliferated by rat urine on board the ships and spread to the Indians once the explorers set foot on land. But to them, the symptoms of yellowing skin, painful joints, cramping, and profuse bleeding from the nose were some sort of hideous curse. Before the year 1615, over 25,000 Indians lived in the area, but by the time the Mayflower showed up on the horizon, whole villages had been wiped out by the mysterious plague, including the one in the Plymouth area.
Even though they were no stranger to the problems of the white man, the Indians watched the colonists in stealth as they struggled to survive. Realizing they would likely die if left alone, Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag finally decided to take pity on the pilgrims, and more likely, to see if they might strike up some sort of mutually beneficial accord. Massasoit, along with his 60 best men, arrived at the top of a hill overlooking the Mayflower and the spindly fires along the shore. He sent down some knives and copper jewel chains as gifts, communicating only his desire for peaceful trading. The pilgrims responded with a warm greeting from King James of England and accepted the hand of friendship and ultimately, salvation. They soon stood by the river together and negotiated a simple peace agreement—no fighting, killing, or donning weapons during trading times. Seemed simple enough. What could go wrong?
Of course, the pilgrims were thankful for this deliverance, not to the Wampanoag but to their benevolent God who had clearly saved them from death. At the instruction of the Indians, the Pilgrims learned how to hunt local animals, gather shellfish, and grow their own crops—just as the traditional Thanksgiving story goes. And at the end of the following summer, the infamous three-day feast known as Nikkomosachmiawene, or the Grand Sachem’s Council Feast, would take place in celebration of their first successful harvest. This romantic moment has been suspended in time for centuries and given birth to the American belief that anything—even the establishment of a great nation—can be achieved if people just work together in peace and unity. While this statement, in and of itself, may be true, it does not accurately portray the emerging relationship between the Wampanoags and the settlers they called the “coat men.” The reality was they worked together because each side possessed a strength the other one needed—the Indians were large in number and experts on survival, while the pilgrims had muskets and cannons for protection. The feast was in all likelihood one of great pragmatism, more like a diplomatic accord than a party.
If the pilgrims had not been joined later by boatloads of fervent Christians—and even later bolstered by the arrival of the sanctimonious Puritans—things might have worked out. But the fact is, the seemingly harmless pilgrims were just the first taste of something much more lethal. The pilgrims had not moved to the new world to struggle and starve—they had sailed across oceans of time to create a new kingdom of faith, joined by their larger congregation intent on colonizing the territory. But for that to work, they needed to find accord with the Indians, at least long enough to strengthen their numbers. The famous feast—now regarded as the centerpiece of Thanksgiving—was, in fact, a carefully designed opportunity for the pilgrims to humor the Wampanoag and negotiate the terms of a white settlement in Plymouth. Massasoit, the Indian chief, agreed to the proposal and gifted them 12,000 acres of land for this purpose. In return, he wanted them to help him defend his coastal territory, which often suffered attacks from neighboring tribes. Although they had no emotional investment in the safety of the Indians, the settlers were clever and did not speak of their larger purpose. They ate and smiled with the Wampanoag, nodding at their agreement and biding their time until the balance of power could be completed. Considering the pilgrims had left Europe—both England and Holland—because of its spirit-crushing lack of piety and repugnant “liberalism,” there’s absolutely no chance they intended to keep these half-naked savages with feathers in their hair around once their spiritual dreams were realized.
As we know, more pilgrims soon began to arrive. A lot more pilgrims. And once they began to form their community and their agenda, the agreements and promises made at the dinner table became more and more obsolete. As neighboring tribes quarreled among themselves and the pilgrims grew in size, the face-off between two factors began to take shape. While the Puritans arrived from England in 1630 to spread their “Covenant of Grace” through righteous behavior, the pilgrim perspective grew stronger and was even bolstered by some tribes, like the Mohegans, who began to side with them against other Indians. But this coalescing of forces angered the most powerful tribe in the area, the Pequots, who became increasingly displeased with what they considered to be an invasion of their homeland. Even though the European fur trade was bringing in wealth and the colonies were becoming more stable, the native tribes continued to fight for political dominance and control of the highly profitable routes. By 1632, the Puritans had settled four river towns, and the English and Dutch settlers had fortified their trading post in the Connecticut River Valley. Incidents of violence began to erupt on both sides as Indians and white men played a brutal game of tit for tat—looting, attacking, and killing each other for various perceived violations.
In late August 1636, an organized English force sailed to Block Island to kill the Manisses Indians, but they were only able to burn the villages, as the tribe had fled into the swamps. Tensions soared into conflict as the Pequots returned the favor by laying siege on the English fort at Saybrook from September 1636 through mid-April 1637, killing anyone who stepped outside the protected walls; destroying cornfields and cattle; burning warehouses used to store goods; raiding Connecticut towns, and kidnapping young girls for ransom. This was the beginning of what would later be known as the Pequot War.
What had begun as a tenuous friendship between a wounded Indian tribe and some starving pilgrims just 17 years before was now a bloody battle for dominion. The English gathered their forces and sailed to Narragansett to destroy the Pequot once and for all. On the morning of May 18, 1637, 80 colonists and over 200 of their Indian allies began a seven-day march towards Connecticut, covering 30 miles of territory in extreme heat. They finally arrived at dusk and camped for the night on the hill above the unsuspecting Pequot village, protected within the Mistick Fort. As an “act of God,” they did not want steal land or control trade—they wanted to destroy every, single living person in within that sleeping camp. The mission was brutal and concise. This notion of “total war” was new to the Indians who mostly thought about a conflict in terms of ongoing skirmishes and battles—not total annihilation. But not the English, they knew precisely what it meant to wage a religious war against others in the name of geopolitical ambitions and the need for retribution. Just like the natives had never seen a disease like the one brought over by the pilgrims, they had also never been witness to the type of war that called for the total destruction of another people. Unlike the Indians who always believed in some degree of negotiation, the English had declared all-out war on their enemies with no room for discussion.
At dawn, the English moved ahead with their surprise attack, choosing one specific entrance—but the Pequot were known to be tactically superior to most and had already fortified the spot with stiff resistance. Although the English had planned to “destroy them by the sword and save the plunder,” they did not plan on losing so many men from the get-go and instantly became flustered with the dense layout of wigwams. As the alert went up in the camp, the English began to retreat as they set fire to every structure, eventually encircling the outside periphery. As the confused, terrified Indians tried to escape the inferno, they were shot and hacked apart by the English lying in wait. In the end, it was discovered the majority of the Pequot’s fighting men had been on campaign elsewhere, which meant the 700 people killed inside the fort were mostly women, children, and the elderly. As a result, the tribe was essentially wiped out an indigenous people, and any survivors were sold into slavery to the West Indies or absorbed into neighboring groups. The blind, heartless cutting down of little children running for their lives in terror shocked the Narragansett and Mohegan warriors who had come along to support the English. Ironically, the Indians were known to be violent and territorial, but they had never witnessed anything more spiritually depraved than Christian warfare.
Nonetheless, the English were quite pleased with their victory and felt sure it was God’s will and divine assurance of their future. When faced with some criticism about his tactics, the leader of the Mystick Massacre, Captain John Mason, stated that God “laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to scorn by making the Indians as a fiery Oven… Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling Mystick with dead Bodies.” The next day, the governor of Massachusetts also applauded the event and declared it “A Day of Thanksgiving” because at least 700 Indians had been permanently dispatched. Cheered by this “victory,” the colonists continued to attack Indian villages, selling any women and children over the age of 14 into slavery and murdering the rest. They declared the Pequot extinct and prohibited anyone to speak the name of the people ever again. The legacy of barbarism had begun, and colonists were emerging as the new authority of the free world.
Boats loaded with as many as 500 slaves regularly left the ports of New England, and bounties were paid for Indian scalps to encourage the “purification” of the new land. The colonists were on a tear, and following a particularly successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches announced the second day of “Thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. During the feasting, the severed heads of Indians were kicked through the streets like soccer balls, and the once-friendly Wampanoag chief was impaled on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts where his head remained on display for the next 24 years. Soon, the Puritans were frenzied with killing, holding Thanksgiving feasts after each successful massacre of the Indians—that is until George Washington finally suggested the festivities be observed on one special day rather than an ongoing celebration of bloody conquest.
Later during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day to be a legal national holiday, most likely in an attempt to unify the nation under a common narrative. Ironically, the decree would be made the very same day he ordered troops to march against the starving Sioux in Minnesota, a sign that perhaps not even he fully recognized the moral corruption behind America’s famous day of thanks.
And the rest is history.